Toro Y Moi’s What For? Is More Alt, Less Chill
He’s thriving in Berkeley and vows to stay down to earth.
Berkeley’s Toro y Moi has a new, What For?, coming out on April 7.
Photo courtesy of Toro y Moi
The Internet’s hottest electronic pop artist, Toro y Moi, blends in among the creatives at Bartavelle Cafe on San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley on a late Tuesday morning.
The 20-something, curly-haired, Filipino-African-American, whose real name is Chaz Bundick, walks in wearing glasses, checkered slip-on Converses, rust-colored slacks, a canvas backpack, and a thin, red bubble jacket. He orders a latte and sits down to talk about flying under the radar.
He’s been recognized by fans once at Target and again at REI, he said. “Some of them freak out, which is cool,” he said. “Some people are totally chill about it—as they should be. I’m just a person.”
Just a person with nearly 500,000 listens of his new single; a highly anticipated new record What For? releasing on April 7 on Carpark Records; and a monthlong, largely sold-out tour with dates at Oakland’s the New Parish and The Independent, as well as two stops at Coachella.
Being humble, relaxed, and mindful is taking Bundick places, though. He grew up in South Carolina as part of the punk rock scene, but his first big break came as a gifted bedroom producer in the net-fueled “chillwave” movement of the past seven years.
Touring broadened his horizons, and “I found myself asking, ‘Is this a city I can see myself in?’ Is it sustainable? Does it have decent public transit, good nature nearby, and good food? Yeah, this is what the Bay has.”
“Since before I moved here, the Bay Area had already sort of been the best crowd for our shows,” he said. So he packed up his synthesizers a couple of years ago and moved with his girlfriend to a two-bedroom apartment in Berkeley, where his now-wife is getting her doctorate in environmental engineering at Cal.
The extremely successful Bay Area transplant spends a typical day getting up early, taking his 7-year-old adopted black mutt for a walk, hitting the climbing gym, and then Bartavelle to process email. He enjoys Tilden Regional Park, the Muir Woods, and Point Isabel, he said. The culture also supports his sound. “I like the whole relaxed vibe and just openness of the Bay, the open-minded type of thinking the Bay has. It’s just a breather.”
Ardent Toro fans should keep an open mind about the new release What For? Many were drawn to Toro for his chill, R&B, funk, and house music vibes, including the critically acclaimed 2013 album Anything in Return. By contrast, the 2015 single “Empty Nesters” is a bubbly, guitar-driven salute to ’90s alt rock like Weezer and Elliott Smith.
“I wanted to still have it be Toro, because I didn’t want to completely alienate people and abandon all R&B and funk roots, but really, this is my roots. I was just another suburban kid listening to Weezer.”
“I just kind of missed it,” he said. “I feel like there’s an absence of guitar-based music now.”
Elliott Smith and Weezer, he said, “affected me a lot. It just stuck with me and it was just a matter of time before I was able to get some of these newer ideas out that were still connected to that sound.”
The album title What For? references Bundick’s focus on artistic intent—putting quality above fame, or profit.
“You should always strive to do good no matter how much it’s worth. If you’re making money or not, if it’s good, people will trust you. It’s better in the long run.”
“I feel like a good product is a simple idea executed well. To make it sustainable, you have to make it with good intentions, and you have to make it with good ideas. So that’s where my mind is at.”
With touring money rolling in, Bundick eschews upgrades. They’re keeping the tiny apartment. Chaz still borrows his wife’s Honda Civic when he needs to drive. “What this job is bringing me is more time to work on projects. It’s important: If you have more time, you should make better things.”
“I’m living the dream; it’s unreal right now,” he said. “I really appreciate it, but I’m just trying to find a way to make it grow sustainably and successfully without losing any integrity and losing touch with what good music is. … Because it happens with every single artist. The bigger they get, the more they start to suck.”